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Airport posturing and the art of ignoring evidence

Airport posturing and the art of ignoring evidence

🕔18.Jun 2013

I’ve spent a few years as an environmental campaigner countering the propaganda that comes out of BHX and their constant begging for more government money to prop up their operations. I still don’t understand why it is that evidence counts for nothing when it comes to the dirty, damaging and unproductive aviation industry.

The economic output of the aviation industry is considerably smaller than that of the water, sewerage and waste industry, yet there’s one shrill voice always claiming to be the potential saviour of our economy (and it’s not people who clean up our mess).

The latest risible claims of Birmingham Airport becoming bigger than Heathrow currently is were lapped up by the media recently, but should be seen in the context of what they are; part of a frenzied process where all airports are currently trying desperately to persuade the government that more and more expansion is possible and they are in the best place to provide it.
 Before that, Heathrow came up with various new plans for a third and fourth runway, there’s the Boris Island ridiculousness and much more to come. There could be 35 airport plans submitted to the Airport Commission by 19th July, which will largely be public relations exercises by firms of architects, eager to impress their rivals or potential customers.

None of this helps in evidence-based policy making, as they all very conveniently ignore any facts that should be taken into account when looking at aviation policy, such as issues to do with the availability and cost of resources (especially fuel), travel trends in recent years and economic projections that may influence these, as well as either measures to deal with climate change or the likely changes to weather patterns and the resulting need for adaptation caused by our inability to act on greenhouse gas emissions.

Birmingham is claiming it could attract 70 million passengers a year – that’s growth of 686% when almost all airports are seeing a reduction in passenger numbers (over the past 5 years), even if the longer term trend is slightly up (about 1.2% a year over the last decade). Quite what amazing events are going to stimulate that kind of growth is unclear, as is who would fund the kind of investment necessary to create the infrastructure necessary for such an enormous airport, especially when the airport’s management had to fight tooth and nail to persuade their shareholders to fund the current runway extension.If we look at the bigger picture, the UK has more runway capacity than Japan, even though Japan – which is also an island trading nation – has twice our population and twice our GDP. Also there is a large amount of spare capacity currently at UK airports – the total capacity of our airports is at least twice, and probably three times, the DfT’s central passenger demand forecast for 2030. On what possible grounds could we be planning to build more capacity now?

We are always told that more airport capacity is needed to promote business and that we can’t possibly compete without direct flights to every corner of the globe, yet business travel accounted for 32% of all air travel in 1995, 24% in 2000 and 20% in 2012. It is not clear why, in the age of videoconferencing, anyone would expect business travel to bounce back up. The number of business flights abroad by UK residents has fallen by a fifth since 2002 and only one in every eight overseas flights by UK residents in 2011 was for business purposes. WWF has worked with businesses to reduce the amount of flying their employees did and this has been remarkably successful – two-year members of the one in five programme have cut their flights by 41%, saving £2.4 million on average. This includes some pretty big companies, such as Balfour Beatty, BSkyB, BT, Lloyds TSB, Marks & Spencer, Microsoft, Skanska and Vodafone UK.

The aviation industry and the DfT have consistently over-estimated not only total air passenger demand but also the relative market share attributable to business travel, which, despite doing exactly the opposite for the past 20 years, they predict to rise faster in future. With the economic contribution, the number of jobs created and the number of passengers all proved to be wildly over-estimated, you would have thought it was time to take a rational look at the situation with a business head on. Let’s see some real evidence to back up the wild claims they are making, otherwise the government should just ignore these fantasists and get on with real policy-making to reflect the world we live in.

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